Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Welcome to my new life


The east side of U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. – T. S. Eliot

On April 22, after 21-plus years of enjoying the landscapes and rhythms of northern California, my wife, Jodi, and I waved goodbye to the San Francisco Bay Area and headed east on Interstate 80. Our final destination? None other than the greater Washington, D.C. area, our new home.

As it happened, over the next week, we drove 2,950.6 miles – covering 13 states starting from California. We crossed the finish line in Maryland on Saturday afternoon, April 29, after beginning the final day of our journey in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Our Passivhaus town home in
Mount Rainier, Maryland.
Our travel week was very busy for us, but one in which we both embraced. After all, we had purchased a brand new house, a Passivhaus town home, in funky Mount Rainier, Maryland, just a couple of short blocks across the District line from Washington and about 15 minutes by car south of the University of Maryland campus in College Park. And, on May 1, my wife began a dream job in research and development at the Library of Congress, which served as the impetus for our leaving California for the Mid-Atlantic east coast.

As we drove across our beautiful and diverse country observing – through the snow-capped Sierra Mountains of California and Nevada, across the massive and great Salt Lake of Utah, alongside the majestic Rocky Mountains of Colorado, across acres and acres of Kansas wheat fields, near the picturesque Gateway Arch of St. Louis, through the Big Ten country of Indiana University in Bloomington, beside the Great American city of Cincinnati and up and down the hilltops of Morgantown – I was reminded often of how Mother Nature often holds up a mirror to us so that we can see more clearly the ongoing processes of growth, of renewal and of transformation in our lives. Our hours and days on the road were also filled with an abundance of music CDs – Pink Martini, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Valerie June, Diana Reeves – a variety of NPR podcasts like "Make Me Smart," and we tried to limit our driving to daytime hours so we could rest and renew ourselves at night.

The scenic beauty of the Donner Summit as seen driving
along Interstate 80 through the California Sierra Mountains.
Fortunately, social media and the Internet enable us to stay more easily connected than ever before with family and friends and we still plan to follow and support our favorite Bay Area professional and collegiate sports teams – just from a different city and time zone. So far, we are enjoying the fine public radio offerings from WAMU in Washington, D.C. as well as reading the Washington Post and the national print edition of The New York Times. And, we've learned thanks to the University of Maryland, which won both the men's and women's national championships in lacrosse, that people in this part of the country do take their lacrosse seriously. We've got tickets to see a Washington Nationals baseball game against the San Francisco Giants, and already we've been to a WNBA women's professional basketball game, too. Yes, there's plenty of rich of history and culture that awaits us in and around the nation's capital city, through its many museums and monuments, parks and trails – and I'm sure our free summer weekends will fill up fast with things to see and do. Already, we've explored historic Annapolis (which I'll write more about in the weeks to come) – it's only about 40 minutes away by car – and I'm sure we'll be back, soon.

Our future looks bright – and it doesn't even have anything to do with the abundance of sunshine we've experienced during the past month. Indeed, as the French novelist Marcel Proust once said, "the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

This year, the City ruled the Land

With a near-perfect 16-1 postseason, the Golden State Warriors won their
second NBA Championship in three years on Monday night.

If you're a Golden State Warriors fan, like I am, you're probably in a pretty good mood today. After all, this is the year that the City ruled the Land.

Congratulations are in order for the Golden State Warriors on the occasion of winning their second NBA Championship in three seasons. On a late, spring Monday night at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., the Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, 129-120, to win their best-of-7 NBA Final, four games to one.

Indeed, as Warriors fans know, there's strength in numbers.

The much-heralded Kevin Durant, who joined the Warriors family nearly a year ago on July 4, 2016, in search of his first championship, garnered the Finals MVP by pouring in 39 points in the clincher. Teammate Stephen Curry, himself a Finals MVP when the Warriors won it all in 2015, added 34. Together, they were virtually unstoppable. In defeat, LeBron James scored a game-high 41 points for the Cavaliers. After the final buzzer sounded, James found both Durant and Curry on the court and offered props to both. Very classy move.

Looking back, the Warriors won the NBA Championship for a reason – they had the best collection of committed players and a coaching staff who molded this group of highly talented and motivated athletes into a winning team. They played with joy and enthusiasm, beauty and unity. Throughout their historic 16-1 post-season run, there was always a sense of passion on display and their desire to achieve a common goal of winning the title was always in focus. On any given night, in any given game, the Warriors always hustled and more often than not, found a way to win.

Thank you, players: Matt, Ian, Stephen, Kevin, Draymond, Andre, Damian, Shaun, Kevon, James Michael, Patrick, JaVale, Zaza, Klay and David. Thank you coaches: Steve, Mike, Ron, Jarron, Bruce, Chris and Willie.

Long after the game ended but not before the celebration had waned, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, sporting a championship tee to go with his Champagne-soaked-and-spiked coiffure, reflected on the championship moment during a televised interview outside Oracle Arena, among a hearty group of blue and gold-clad Warriors fans. As always, with the right sense of thought and tone of voice – and with graciousness, too –  his words spoke volumes:

"There's so much joy, so much love. It's an incredible group of guys," said Kerr. "We know how talented they are. They are so committed to each other and to the greater good. That's ultimately what puts you over the top. We have the talent – obviously – to compete for a title every year, but what puts you over the top, I think, is when you have that level of respect and commitment to each other."

This year, it was the Warriors turn to win it all.

Friday, April 7, 2017

The time for advise and consent is now, Mr. President


Last night, while many of us throughout America were either sitting down to Thursday dinner or enjoying an evening of "must-watch" prime-time television, the U.S. made a direct attack of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria (where it was already early Friday morning) in retaliation for the gruesome chemical weapons attack against civilians by the Assad regime.

The attack represented the first direct American assault on the Syrian government and President Donald Trump's "most dramatic military order since becoming president."

The airfield strikes denoted a very big change in U.S. policy – and it was done without the President seeking congressional approval. "Assad's vicious brutality demands a response," said Congressman Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) on his Facebook page. "But this country doesn't fight wars without giving the American people a say." Many others in Congress conveyed the same thoughts as Kennedy.

There's a lot to digest here and both American and international media are weighing in on this story of world consequences. It's front-page "real" news across this country and the video images have been splashed all over various American cable TV news networks almost continuously since last evening.

There's one little thing that I am just a little troubled by. Perhaps, you are, too. The President said during his speech to the nation Thursday, delivered from a makeshift podium inside Mar-a-Lago, where earlier he had been hosting a dinner for the Chinese President: "No child of God should suffer such horror." Hmm. ... So,  he sees them now as children of God, but not when they are trying to escape the danger of civil war and chemical weapons?

Air strike or not, Mr. President, we must welcome Syrian refugees into our country like our good neighbors to the north, Canada, have been doing with dignity and humanity for some time. The time to act, sir, is now.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A New Orleans diary: Why food matters in the Big Easy

Domilise's / Nothing fancy or elaborate.
Just one of the best meals in the Big Easy.

New Orleans takes its food seriously – gumbo, red beans and rice, and beignets come to mind – and it's been said that you can't come to the Big Easy and not eat a po-boy sandwich. So, why not try the best – even if it's made to order in a hard-to-find location up river from the French Quarter, where parking is difficult at best and getting a table (there are only five) or a seat at the bar (there's about 10 of them) is a matter of good timing. Yet, despite all of these obstacles, the locals swear by this hole in the wall kind of place.

Domilise's Po-Boy and Bar consists of a single-room bar
and dining area with five tables and about 10 bar seats.
Such it was on a recent Friday afternoon while visiting New Orleans that my wife and I dropped in at Domilise's Po-Boy and Bar, tucked away at 5240 Annunciation Street (corner Bellecastle), and treated ourselves to a po-boy sandwich for lunch. We had an hour to kill before we had to be on the highway headed west toward Lafayette in the Acadiana region of Louisiana to attend our nephew's wedding celebration.

We first visited Domilise's back in 2001 – pre Hurricane Katrina – and it was an enjoyable experience. So it was on our next visit to New Orleans earlier this month, we knew we wanted to revisit Domilise's.

Domilise's Po-Boy and Bar is an Uptown New Orleans restaurant known for its po-boy sandwiches. For the uninitiated, a po-boy is a traditional Louisiana sandwich served on baguette-like New Orleans French bread that's known for its fluffy center and crispy crust. The restaurant was founded in the 1930s by the Domilise family, who I learned lived in the house above the single-room bar/dining area. It was run by Sam and Dorothy "Miss Dot" Domilise for more than 75 years until her death in 2013. Although it was closed during Hurricane Katrina, since reopening Domilise's has been more popular than ever – acclaimed by many, including CNN's Anderson Cooper as well as Anthony Bourdain, who once filmed a spot on location for his Travel Channel program No Reservations.

My Domilise's meal /
A delicious ham and Swiss po-boy,
Zapp's New Orleans kettle-style chips,
Barq's root beer.
During our recent visit, my po-boy of choice a ham and Swiss cheese dressed with spicy Cajun mustard, shredded lettuce and pickles while my wife opted for a turkey dressed all the way. Both were made with love by the sweet ladies who manned the kitchen. The reasonably priced menu is full of excellent choices, including shrimp, oyster, catfish, roast beef and sausage, and come in two sizes: small and large. The small was plenty large for my appetite. Along with my fabulous po-boy, I complemented my "meal" with a bag of Zapp's New Orleans kettle-style potato chips and a bottle of Barq's root beer.

We sat at the bar sipping on our sodas and munching our chips – and soaking up the vibrant atmosphere – while our po-boys were being prepared with TLC, waiting for a table to open up. By the time our order was called, a table materialized by the back entrance. Nothing fancy, but plenty of space to spread out and enjoy our delicious – albeit sometimes messy – po-boys. Looking around as we ate, I couldn't help but notice we were likely the only tourists mixed among a crowded room full of white- and blue-collar locals who swear by this place for a great meal.

Domilise's Po-Boy & Bar /
Uptown at the corner of Annunciation and Bellecastle.
As Tom Piazza points out in his insightful 2006 book Why New Orleans Matters, "the real neighborhood places, tucked away usually in some unlikely corner of a residential street, animate the day-to-day grass roots culinary life of the city. There is nothing fancy or elaborate about these places to say the least, but also nothing humdrum or mass-produced, or even lackluster ... It is a point of honor to make food that tastes good – I don't think a New Orleanian would even understand the concept of turning out blah food so you could just eat and run.

"You can go into the most unassuming place – say, Domilise's, a sandwich shop with a hand-lettered sign in a very modest corner house a block from the river in a residential uptown neighborhood – and get a meal that you will remember for the rest of your days. Or at least for the rest of the day."

Indeed, you see food is a part of the rhythm and life of New Orleans, and it doesn't get much better than this. There's a reason that Domilise's is one of the best at what they do.

Photos: Cover photo courtesy of Google Images. All other photos by Michael Dickens © 2017.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Resolved: It's time to READ more books


We're a week into March – spring is almost here – and although I didn't formally jot down any New Year's resolutions for 2017, if I had, one that would have been near the top of my list is my desire to read more. "So many books ... so little time," reads the slogan printed on one of my tattered, well-worn navy-colored t-shirts that I bought a few years ago at The Elliott Bay Book Company, situated in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. It happens to be one of my favorite independent booksellers in the entire country – and it's always on my things to do list whenever I visit Seattle.

When I say to you that I want to "read more," by that I mean read more books. While I stay abreast of current events by reading The New York Times daily, both in print and online, and give a good read to periodicals like The New Yorker and Monocle, the London-based monthly that covers world affairs, culture, food and design, now, every day is like engaging in an American Civics class thanks to the narcissist behavior and dystopian actions of our current president. And, I should mention that perusing my Facebook news feed has become a necessity in order to stay current on what's trending with POTUS 45, too.

But, what about books, you ask? Yes, books, remember them? Books are the foundation behind what made Amazon.com one of the most successful online retailers. Before Twitter, before Facebook, before Netflix, before texting sapped all of our intellectual energy, there were books. I have several bookshelves at home that are lined with hundreds of titles that I've bought or received as gifts over the years. Let's see, I'm proud of my collection of books by The New Yorker writers Roger Angell and Calvin Trillin, among many, and I enjoy reading books about baseball, my favorite sport. However, a few years ago, in a space-saving and budget-cutting effort, I trimmed back on the number of new titles I bought and, instead, decided to start making better use of my local public library.

Looking back on 2016, I can say without boasting that I made good use of my Oakland Public Library card. I checked out about a book a month. One thing I've learned about libraries is this: If you're willing to wait for a popular best-seller or a new title to become available, checking out library books is a good way to save money (and, I might add, bookshelf space) while also showing support for our public libraries.

Both Comedy Central's The Daily Show and the New York Times Book Review are pretty good indicators for learning about good books to read. Before he left The Daily Show, former host Jon Stewart always brought out the best in authors. You could judge by his interest in a book if it was worth reading. New Daily Show host Trevor Noah is carrying on the tradition begun by Stewart.

Among the books which I read during 2016 were:

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert Reich.

• I'd Know That Voice Anywhere by Frank Deford.

Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America by Calvin Trillin.

Goodbye: In Search of Gordon Jenkins and Shop Around: Growing Up with Motown in a Sinatra Household, both by Bruce Jenkins.

Indentured: The Inside Story of Rebellion Against the NCAA by Joe Nocera.

Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession by William Skidelsky.

Among the ties that bind these titles are my interest in non-fiction, memoirs, sports, and music. And, of course, good writing and good stories always garner my attention.

Looking ahead, I ask: Is it possible that I can increase my output this year so that I'm reading an average of a book a month? Let's see, I've already started Writings on the Wall: Searching For a New Equality Beyond Black and White by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and I'm nearly finished with the current Michael Lewis book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. 

Also, I received Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler's Journey Through the Soul of the South by Susan Puckett as a Christmas gift from my brother, and I recently bought an autographed copy of Trevor Noah's Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood. 

Finally, I've got Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, the acclaimed 674-page memoir by Elvis Costello that spans his almost four-decade music career left over from last year's reading list that I would like to start this year.

There's plenty to look forward to reading while trying to forget everything that's going bad with our democracy, thanks to a certain POTUS. Now, if I can just remember to stop turning on the TV.

Photo: Stained glass sign at The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, courtesy of Google Images.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Stitches West: So much yarn and fiber = so much fun


Skeins and skeins of colorful yarn / The scene outside the Yarnover Truck,
a mobile yarn boutique, on Saturday morning at Stitches West. 

Last Saturday, my wife Jodi and I attended the 2017 Stitches West yarn and fiber exhibition in Santa Clara, Calif., where we connected with many of our fiber friends. When you're the husband of a knitter, like I've been going on nearly 20 years, you set aside the last weekend in February for the fiber arts – and embrace the creative experience.

Ball So Hard /
Neighborhood Fiber Company's slogan.
I've been Jodi's regular companion – and I'm proud to be her yarn enabler, too – at this annual gathering for more years than I can remember. Together, we've seen it grow into one of the West Coast's premiere fiber arts events.

Although husbands and boyfriends makeup a very small percentage of the ever-growing yarn and fiber crowd at Stitches West, I attend willingly and feel uninhibited, totally at ease. If you've ever been tempted by the fiber arts, whether it be knitting, crocheting or spinning, the Stitches West marketplace is the place to go see. After all, there's so much yarn and fiber, which can only mean one thing: So much fun.

Upon entering the Marketplace Hall, which we did when the doors opened at 10 a.m. on Saturday, knitters and their enablers are easily tempted by row upon row of booths filled with colorful and luscious yarn and gorgeous fiber that's not only attractive to look at, it's also lovely to touch, too. It's the place to plan the perfect sweater, find fiber friends, and gain new perspectives – even take an engaging class.

Miss Babs Hand-Dyed Yarns & Fibers /
Inspired by nature.
Our first stop of the day inside the Marketplace Hall was at Miss Babs Hand-Dyed Yarns & Fibers, whose booth is always an inspiration for lovely designs and colorful fibers. Miss Babs is Babs Ausherman, a hard-working, insightful fiber artist and online retailer of hand-dyed yarn and fiber and patterns based in Mountain City, Tenn. I've learned that she was raised in a family of creative types and entrepreneurs – and she believes that a good day's work is good for the soul.

I've had the pleasure to visit and talk with Miss Babs each of the past several years when she comes to California. I appreciate her sharp wit, artistic and creative flair, and her thoughtfulness. From her, I've learned that color ideas come from everywhere – especially when they're inspired by nature.

A Verb For Keeping Warm /
Beautifully decorated and inviting for knitters.
From there, it was on to see our dear friends Kristine Vejar and Adrienne Rodriguez, whose naturally-dyed A Verb For Keeping Warm yarn and fiber have made their bricks-and-mortar shop a haven for knitters and fiber artists close to home in Oakland. Their booth each year is always beautifully decorated and inviting. As always, whenever we drop by the AVFKW booth, it's abuzz with newly designed and naturally dyed yarn and fiber, and plenty of knitters perusing the yarn and fiber as well as patterns and project bags.

We also paid a nice visit to Neighborhood Fiber Co., based in Baltimore, whose uniquely hand-dyed yarn is inspired by urban landscapes.

After a leisurely lunch with a couple of fiber friends, it was time to renew our friendship with Robin Senour, a glasswork artist from Berkeley, whose witty Sacred Laughter artwork and philosophy ("Bring more art into your life") we admire and adore. On Saturday, we bought out tenth piece of Sacred Laughter, a badger from Senour's "Wind and the Willows" fairy tale collection. Over the years, we've made many friends among the yarn and fiber vendors and artisans at Stitches West – and it's always nice to be recognized like an old friend by them.

After one last pass through the aisles, where we renewed our acquaintance with Kira Dulaney of Kira K Designs – she shared with me the great news that she had just completed creating her 100th pattern in 10 years – and we also met the good folks from The Knitting Tree, L.A., it was time to make full circle by returning to Miss Babs to purchase some skeins of lovely and colorful yarn and say goodbye until next year.

Looking back, as my appreciation of the fiber arts continues to grow, I will always enjoy making time to explore the creative process and to find out what inspires these remarkable fiber artists.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Because none of us is as smart as all of us


Podcasts are a genre of narrative audio that have taken off in recent years. There are plenty of podcasts devoted to politics, sports, fashion and music. Search long enough and you will find podcasts devoted to topics like knitting and English football, too. While some podcasts lack polish, others sound like NPR programs. One thing they definitely are is portable.

One of my new favorites is "Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly," a podcast that's about the economy, technology and culture. It's motto is: "Because none of us is as smart as all of us."

"Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly" is hosted by Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal and Molly Wood, and they use their collective expertise "to connect the dots on the topics they know best, and get help from listeners and experts about the ones they want to know better."

Prior to its launch last month, here's what Kai and Molly wrote on the podcast's website: "Here's what we think when we say 'smart.' Facts and figures? Sure, but not enough. Analysis and opinion? Absolutely, but still not quite there. Understanding, historical context, research and connecting individual stories as pieces of a larger whole? Now we're talking.

"We want to focus on analysis and understanding, not on headlines and talking points. And we each have our own expertise, but we know we're not always going to be the smartest people in the room.

"You have your own smarts. And together, we can all get just a little bit smarter."

"Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly" releases a new episode each week on Tuesday – it can be downloaded via iTunes or you can listen to it on the podcast's website – and the most recent one, "Reputation in the Age of the Protest Economy," made its debut on Feb. 21. It featured a conversation with Sallie Krawcheck, founder and CEO of Ellevest, an investment platform for women.

On the podcast's website, www.marketplace.org/topics/make-me-smart, to draw in listeners for a recent latest episode, "It's the Economy, Cupid," it teased: "Time to take a look at a big thing that's getting lost in the first four weeks of the Trump administration. Hint: It's the economy. Other highlights: a cameo by David Frum, senior writer for The Atlantic, answering the show's "Make Me Smart" question: "What's something that you thought you once knew, but turns out you were wrong about?" Later in the same episode, Kai and Molly talked with Eric Bickel and Michael Weis of the Quantify Louisville blog. What they do is to take publicly available data from the city of Louisville, Kentucky, then look for stories hidden in the data. How cool is that! Bickel and Weis spoke about specific ways in which to judge the value of any given statistic.

On earlier episodes, Kai and Molly talked with Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, author of the book The Attention Merchants, who coined the phrase network neutrality, "which is the principle that internet service providers should enable equal access to all content and applications, and not favor one source of content over another." Also, they spoke to Scott Phoenix, co-founder of Vicarious, a company that is trying to build a new kind of artificial intelligence, and to Autodesk CEO Carl Bass.

"Our ultimate goal at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country," Ryssdal said prior to the podcast's launch. "Right now it's especially important that we work together to identify and understand what's truly newsworthy. This is exactly what 'Make Me Smart' does."

Adds Woods: "'Make Me Smart' is really a passion project for both of us. It's taking what Kai and I already do at Marketplace and putting it into a new format that allows us to go beyond what we can do on air. This podcast will let us press pause on what's newsworthy and dive even deeper into the topics that people not only want, but need to hear about."

Photo: Courtesy of Marketplace and American Public Media.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Nike: Equality has no boundaries

LeBron James during the filming of Nike's "Equality" commercial. /
"We can be equals everywhere."

On Sunday evening during the nationally televised Grammy Awards program, Nike debuted a short film about #EQUALITY. It's message was clear: Equality has no boundaries.

This extraordinary 90-second spot, filmed in black in white, was directed by Melina Matsoukas who has two Grammy Awards for her work on Beyoncé's "Formation" and Rihanna's "We Found Love." It features NBA great LeBron James and co-stars American athletes Serena Williams, Kevin Durant, Megan Rapinoe, Gabby Douglas, Victor Cruz, and Dalilah Muhammad.

"Equality" has already received more than 4 million views on YouTube.




The central theme of "Equality," which also features actor Michael B. Jordan in a cameo as well as narrating the script, and singer Alicia Keys covering Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," is this: "The Equality and fairness prevalent in major professional sports should transcend into broader society."

As part of Nike's Black History Month campaign, their initiative aims to "inspire people to take action in their communities."

The voice over in the film (Jordan) says "if we can be equals here," referring to a basketball court, then James says "we can be equals everywhere."

Writing in ESPN's "The Undefeated" sports, race and culture website, writer Clinton Yates said: "Using a street art metaphor to make a point about in-your-face activism is not only effective, but for many who'll likely see this ad, perhaps familiar."

It made an impact with me; I hope it makes an impact with you.

#EQUALITY
Is this the land history promised?
Here within these lines.
On this concrete court. 
This patch of turf.
Here, you're defined by your actions, not your looks or beliefs.
Equality should have no boundaries.
The bonds we find here should run past these lines.
Opportunity should not discriminate.
The ball should bounce the same for everyone.
Worth should outshine color.
If we can be equals here, we can be equals everywhere.

A postscript: Nike has released a behind-the-scenes look at "Equality," which is worth a good look. It showed what equality means to each of the athletes involved. Said Rapinoe: "Being a woman in sport, first of all, equality is not always something that we're privy to. And being a gay woman in this country, in sport, wherever I am in the conversation, it's there. It's my responsibility of making sure that I speak up about it, and speak up for other people. Hopefully, it can grow that movement in that way."

Adds James: "At the end of the day, we're always just trying to find a way that we can all feel equal, we can all be equal, have the same rights, have the same feelings, being able to be in the same place no matter the color."




• Nike, which plans to air the "Equality" film during next Sunday's NBA All-Star Game, is currently promoting "Equality" t-shirts on its website. According to Adweek, Nike will donate $5 million during this calendar year to "numerous organizations that advance equality in communities across the U.S., including Mentor and PeacePlayers."


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Super Bowl ads: Are you paying attention, Mr. President?


How did I spend my Super Bowl Sunday? Watching the big game, of course. As much as I was riveted by the exciting outcome – New England beat Atlanta, 34-28, after coming from behind to force the first overtime game in the 51-year history of the Super Bowl – I focused on the commercials, too.

This year, many ads contained politically charged messages and several TV spots highlighted hot-button themes such as immigration (Budweiser, 84 Lumber), equal pay (Audi) and inclusion (Coca-Cola). Are you paying attention, Mr. President?

Long after the game ends, collectively, we do seem to remember the commercials, especially the good ones. There were a couple of ads that resonated with me for a variety of reasons, for Coca-Cola and for Airbnb. Both aired early during Sunday evening's Super Bowl LI game broadcast.

In "It's Beautiful," Coca-Cola's message was simple: "Together is beautiful." The Atlanta-based soft drink titan scored a touchdown with its Super Bowl ad that aired just before kickoff, in which culturally diverse Americans sang a multilingual version of "America The Beautiful," in English, Hindi, Arabic and Tagalog.

The 60-second spot designed by Wieden + Kennedy debuted during the 2014 Super Bowl to mixed results and was revived during last year's Rio Olympic Games. However, given the current national conversation many Americans have been sharing about immigration and diversity, its message seemed more relevant. "It's Beautiful" featured plenty of beautiful, multicultural images depicting America as a nation of many races, many ethnicities and many religions. It promoted optimism, inclusion and humanity, themes which seem foreign to the dystopian American carnage being propagated by the Trump Administration. It was beautifully filmed and edited, and given today's political climate, "It's Beautiful" took on a certain poignance this time.


Another commercial worth applauding came from Airbnb, whose politically charged message in its "We Accept" ad spoke volumes about diversity and acceptance: "Acceptance starts with all of us." In its Super Bowl commercial, put together on short notice  – perhaps seen as a Silicon Valley response to President Trump's immigration ban – Airbnb reminded us of this simple but important message: "We believe no matter who you are, where you're from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept." Indeed, the world is more beautiful the more #weaccept. The hashtag went viral by halftime.

Afterwards, I learned Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky announced that the company is aiming to provide short-term housing for 100,000 refugees, disaster survivors, and other displaced persons over the next five years. Additionally, over the next four years, Airbnb will donate $4 million to the International Rescue Committee.

"We couldn't talk about the lack of acceptance in the world without pointing out the challenges in our own community at Airbnb," the company said in a statement following the airing of its ad. "The painful truth is that guests on Airbnb have experienced discrimination, something that is the very opposite of our values. We know we have work to do and are dedicated to achieving greater acceptance in our community."


Looking back on both ads – expressions of American values I support – reminded me of this: I have many multicultural friends – thanks, Facebook – who are close and dear to me. They represent many races and ethnic backgrounds, come from many different religious faiths, and speak multiple languages. I have friends who identify with the LGBTQ community. I have friends who are biracial. I have friends who are raising biracial children and friends who are parenting transgendered children. Thus, it's important to see advertisers, representing both legacy and start-up companies, reaching out to all Americans by conveying positive messages about inclusion, diversity and acceptance. After all, there's no larger TV audience than a Super Bowl audience for spreading a good message.

Regardless of what you think, Mr. President, these ads conveyed the true spirit of our America.

Cover photo: Courtesy of Google Images. Videos: Courtesy of YouTube.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Federer-Nadal: A welcome respite from American politics

Victorious / Roger Federer kisses the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup
trophy Sunday night after winning the 2017 Australian Open

men's singles championship for his 18th career Grand Slam title.

The Australian Open tennis fortnight down under in Melbourne, which wrapped up over the weekend first with the all-Williams women's final between Serena and Venus (won by Serena) and followed by the renewal of the great men's rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, was a very welcome respite for those of us here in the United States as we came to grips with a narcissistic president, who in his first week in office undermined many fundamental principles that shape our American democracy.

While the talk of Federer's stunning comeback – reaching the AO final after being out six months while recovering from a knee injury that required surgery – Nadal's return from a wrist injury was a welcome one, too. The Federer-Nadal final, which didn't exist on most fan's minds at the beginning of the tournament, left them feeling a bit giddy. Going the distance and playing five sets will do that.

There was a buzz of nostalgia in the air when Federer emerged victorious with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 win that was his 18th career Grand Slam title. The Swiss is the all-time men's leader and Nadal, tied with Pete Sampras, is a distant second with 14.

Nadal said it was a special thing for both him and Federer to be playing together in the final of a Grand Slam, especially after a couple of years of having problems.

"I am a positive person (so) I never say never because I worked very hard to be where I am," Nadal said after his almost-five hour semifinal victory over Grigor Dimitrov that began last Friday night and finished in the wee hours of Saturday morning, a day before the Federer match. "I really have been working very hard. ... I always had the confidence that if I am able to win some matches, then anything can happen."

If President Donald Trump thrives on his own culture of self-inflicted conflict and chaos, Nadal thrives on a raw emotion that's filled with clinched fists and screams of "Vamos!" However, unlike the American reality TV host-turn-populist commander in chief, Nadal possesses many fine and likable qualities. He's a positive person, polite, mannered and respectful on court – even in defeat. These are a few attributes our new president could benefit from learning from Nadal.

With the old guard on the rise Sunday night, the AO final marked the ninth time that the 35-year-old Federer – the oldest male finalist in 43 years – and Nadal, 30, played for a Grand Slam title. Before Sunday, Nadal had won six of the previous eight finals meetings. Remarkably, they had not met for a major championship since the 2011 French Open, in which Nadal won his sixth of nine titles at Roland Garros. Nadal has long dominated his lifetime series against Federer, 23-12. Although if you eliminate matches on clay in which Nadal has a huge edge, the series tally is now even, 10-10.

"Being honest, in these kinds of matches I won a lot of times against him. Today he beat me, and I just congratulate him," Nadal said.

As Sunday night's final neared its conclusion, it became evident while studying the body language and facial expressions of both Federer and Nadal that neither wanted to lose. After all, there's joy in winning. With joy, it makes the suffering during big matches so much the better – especially ones that go five sets. Federer went the distance in each of his final three AO matches, Nadal in his last two. In victory or defeat, Nadal always shows an indomitable spirit – and it was on display again for the Rod Laver Arena crowd and a worldwide TV audience to enjoy when he and the always gracious Federer, who are friends off the court and foes on it, met for the 35th time in their storied careers.

Federer was thrilled to be back in the spotlight of another Grand Slam final. "Yeah. It's real now," he said. ... "I never ever in my wildest dreams thought I'd come this far in Australia. But here I am.

"Against Rafa it's always epic. This one means a lot to me because he's caused me problems over the years."

When match point was decided by a replay review that was upheld, Federer pumped his arms above his head and leapt up and down with much delight. Both happy and relieved, emotions poured out of Federer. He admitted afterward that it was an awkward way to win.

"I'm out of words, said Federer, as he addressed Nadal during an on-court interview while clutching the champion's trophy. "I don't think either of us believed we'd be in the final here when we were at your academy five, six months ago. Here we stand in the finals.

"I'm happy for you. I would have been happy to lose to you. The comeback was perfect as it was. It's been a difficult last six months, let's be honest. I wasn't sure I was going to be here, but here I am. This was a wonderful run, and I can't be more happy to win tonight."

Photo: Courtesy of Google Images.